Esteemed children’s book editor, publisher, and author Charlotte Zolotow, whose written works are lauded for their warmth and their realistic portrayals of childhood emotion, died Tuesday, November 19, at her home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. She was 98.
Zolotow was born Charlotte Shapiro in Norfolk, Va., in 1915. As a shy and awkward child whose family frequently moved, she has said that she found writing easier than talking. She won her first award for essay writing in the third grade, and seemed to have found a lifelong calling.
In the early 1930s, Zolotow attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a writing scholarship. While there, Zolotow met fellow student and aspiring writer Maurice Zolotow. The couple married in 1938 and settled in New York City where they had two children, son Stephen (Zee) and daughter Ellen , who later changed her name to Crescent Dragonwagon and is also an author.
Also in 1938, Zolotow began a secretarial position at Harper & Brothers. She soon became editorial assistant to (and protégé of) legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom. Zolotow built a venerable decades-long career at Harper, moving up through the ranks to become v-p and associate publisher of the children’s division and later was given her own eponymous imprint. She retired in 1991 and was given the title of publisher emeritus.
With Nordstrom’s encouragement Zolotow wrote her first picture book, The Park Book, illustrated by H.A. Rey, in 1944. She went on to create more than 90 titles for children, including Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, which was named a Caldecott Honor Book in 1963; and William’s Doll by illus. by William Pène du Bois, a 1972 book considered controversial because it features a boy who wants a doll.
During her tenure as an editor, Zolotow worked with such noted authors as Patricia MacLachlan, Francesca Lia Block, Paul Fleischman, Paul Zindel, M.E. Kerr, and John Steptoe. She was honored in 1998 when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison established the Charlotte Zolotow Award, an annual prize for the best picture book text published in the U.S. Additionally in 1998, the CCBC initiated the Charlotte Zolotow Lecture, which has been presented by Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume, and the late Jean Craighead George, among other distinguished authors.
Former colleague Joanna Cotler shared this remembrance of Zolotow: “When I first came to work at HarperCollins, I was lucky enough to be tapped by Charlotte Zolotow as someone she wanted to mentor. Kind, funny, whip smart, exacting. She edited with a green felt-tip pen, often scribbling “wonderful” in the margins of a manuscript, which tempered all other comments. She was fearless in the face of good work – think Weetzie Bat – and her authors adored her. As an editor, she taught me to always trust my own instincts, and to encourage authors and artists to dig deep to find their best work. Because she knew being an author herself contributed to her great gifts as an editor, she nurtured editors who had other talents because she believed it made us better editors, and happier humans. It was only Charlotte who was able to get me, an abstract painter, to write and illustrate my one and only children’s book. She was a force to be reckoned with.”